There's nothing like a sermon to make it hard for christians to learn and grow


It is well established that lectures and sermons are poor ways to teach and to change – see Sermons – not how we learn best? A good sermon may encourage the congregation, but only a small percentage of people learn that way, and most don’t remember much, especially after the first 15 minutes.

More research information is coming in all the time. And it seems christians are the last to learn.

University lectures don’t rate

A recent Scientific American reported on a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which examined hundreds of studies on the effectiveness of lecturing in universities.

When compared to more participatory learning, lectures rated very poorly. “Learners who are subjected to the one-way mode of lecture-based teaching have a 1.5 times higher failure rate than those who are allowed more participative methods.” Students found it difficult to concentrate for the entire lecture, and often became passive.

One study found student scores at the end of a semester of lectures were only 14% higher than they had been at the start!

This isn’t surprising. “Cognitive scientists determined that people’s short-term memory is very limited – it can only process so much at once. A lot of the information presented in a typical lecture comes at students too fast and is quickly forgotten.”

lecturing isn’t the best method to get students thinking and learning.

Participatory learning is way better

Cognitive research has found that people learn better when they’re actively engaged. People learn by practicing, with feedback to tell them what they’re doing right and wrong and how to get better. They also learn when they have to explain something to someone else.

One method that is effective is Peer Instruction. It can work in several ways:

After lecturing on a topic for 15-20 minutes, the lecturer stops and asks a multiple-choice format ‘quiz question’ that tests students’ understanding of the topic under discussion. Students vote on the right answer, and the lecture is adjusted accordingly. If there is poor understanding, the students are asked to discuss the question with their neighbours, and a second vote is taken. The results are almost always far better.

Alternatively, the discussion can be held at the beginning, to awaken interest in the subject, or at any point during the lecture. It turns out that those who understand the topic can generally explain it better to their friends than the expert lecturer can.

“The “convince-your-neighbour’ sessions allow for valuable peer interaction between students. This promotes active engagement: students have to do more than passively assimilate material, they must think about it and try to explain it to someone else.”

Use of Peer Instruction improves student learning and understanding.

Sermons are lectures

Sermons are basically lectures, and studies have found that congregation members react similarly to university students. They lose concentration easily, and they learn and understand better if they are actively learning. One pastor reported:

“During my message, I asked our folks to find a partner and share their response to a non-threatening question. Initially, my inquiry was met with blank stares, but slowly everyone began to partner up. Faces that had been somber moments before broke out in smiles as they engaged in conversation. I let them share for a couple of minutes and then resumed my sermon.”

“After the service people kept talking, many of them finishing the conversations they’d started during my sermon. Also, several people thanked me for preaching the best sermon they said they’d ever heard. Many talked about the steps they were going to take to live out what I had talked about. Woo hoo!”

Replacing sermons with more interactive learning will be best, but if we must have sermons (and it seems unlikely that preachers will give them up easily, even though they are less effective), they should employ active learning and Peer Instruction approaches.

But you are forgetting about the Holy Spirit

This objection is often made. But are we going to offer God anything less than the best? Should we deliberately use poor methods, trusting him to “fix them up”? If we really believed that the Holy Spirit worked in this way, we would eliminate sermons entirely and just read the scriptures, and rely on the Spirit to teach each person!

My congregation appreciates my sermons and they wouldn’t accept change

Studies show sermons make congregations feel better, but they neither learn much or change much as a result. Pastors who want to equip their congregation for the work of ministry (Ephesians 4:12) instead of keeping them passive and doing most of the ministry themselves, will find ways to make gradual change.

But I was never taught how to do this

This is a substantial issue. Instead of teaching preaching, Bible colleges should be teaching education, training and equipping.

In the meantime, most congregations include school teachers who are trained in these things. Pastors should utilise the teachers’ gifts, to gain new skills themselves, and to do team teaching with the trained school teachers.

The challenge

The research is quite clear, but how will pastors respond? Their self esteem is often bound up in their preaching. If the congregation takes a greater role in learning and teaching each other, will this make preachers obsolete?

It is hardly likely to happen that quickly. But if we want to train and equip the next generation to be more active and effective in their service than their parents’ generation, we will take the necessary steps.

Photo Credit: Rachel Ford James via Compfight cc

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  1. Techniques come and go and none of them make a blind bit of difference, all be it stirring up a bit of a buzz for a short while and I don’t think having open discussions within sermons is going to bring the latter rain somehow. Lol
    The thing that makes us all ineffective compared to the early church is sin. So put off your old nature and you will aquire power, which needs no techniques or man made bullshit!!

  2. Hi Alan, thanks for your comment. I find your view interesting.
    1. Do you think avoiding sin and using good methods are mutually exclusive? Or is it possible to do both?
    2. I find it interesting that you use a totally modern technology-based medium like a WordPress blog on the internet to tell me that we don’t need “techniques or man made bullshit”. You found techniques or man made bullshit helpful to communicate your message, so why shouldn’t anyone?
    3. Why not use the methods that studies of human beings have shown work best?
    I’d be interested to hear what you think. Thanks. Eric

Comments are closed.